“Cur!” Carolus shouted, throwing back his blanket and struggling to his feet. “You are assaulting a prince of the realm. That is high treason, even for you!”
Roland smiled, a broad grin that showed all of his worn, yellowed teeth. “Daybreak was a half hour ago. The youngling has had enough of my compassion, royal or not.”
“You may be my father’s champion,” Carolus said, using a rocky outcrop for balance as he pulled himself up to a standing position, “but one day I’ll take my place on the throne, and where will you be then?”
Roland grunted and swung his battle axe over his shoulder. “Most likely, I will be cold in the earth.”
“Do not presume your soul will enter the Hall of the Ancients then.” Carolus’s his lithe form shivered in the bitter morning, his translucent skin betraying the delicate web of veins on his hands as he brushed his blonde hair from his face.
“Maggots will be my only reward, young princeling. I am sure of that. Now, get your pack together. We have much ground to cover.”
Roland took one last look over his shoulder at the smoke rising from Wintersholm. He thought about the people he had seen in the outer wards as they rode toward the gates. The victims of the sleeping plague - there had been so many of them, frost lighting on bodies piled high on wooden carts, more doomed souls sitting in doorways oblivious to the biting chill, the snowflakes falling in lolling mouths, stinging unresponsive eyes. He remembered the sounds of children crying, mothers weeping, husbands wailing – but worst of all were the vacant faces of the afflicted, the living-dead who could hear those same sounds and not be moved to any response at all. One by one, the people of his city were becoming statues.
“I ask again ‘champion’ – you are sure this path will take us to the Snow Mage?” Carolus’ nasal voice, not long deep in its maturity, pulled Roland back to the task at hand.
“Aye,” the older man grunted, and he shifted his girdle round his pressing middle. “Sure as an axe blade.”
“But you will still not let me see the map?”
Roland shook his head, kicked out the remains of the camp fire and strode through its ashes. “Time to go, lad.”
He could hear the boy muttering behind him as he pulled one furred boot after the other through the thickening snow. It was the coldest winter in a hundred years – so cold, the wolves were eating each other.
It was a whole day’s journey to where they needed to be, Roland knew, up the increasingly treacherous slope of the mountain and into the stinging mouth of the blizzard. The silence between him and his young companion did not bother him, but he could sense how nervous it made Carolus. For four decades he had faced men on the field of battle, and he could smell anxiety like it was sour milk. It was one of the things that had kept him alive in those early years – the ability to know which battle he could win, which men he could fight and which he must bow to. Carolus’s father, King Glenalph, never gave off the scent his son was now reeking of – that was one of the reasons Roland had bowed to him for so long – at least, not until their last meeting, not until the ageing monarch had told Roland his plan. The recollection made a bolt of anger surge through his veins.
“What if the Snow Mage won’t help us?” Carolus, some way back from Roland, shouted through the banshee wind. “What if we are wasting our time, and our lives?”
Roland stopped, allowing the prince to gain ground. “That’s why you’re here, young master. The wizard will not listen to a grizzled old retainer, but a high-born – your silver tongue is a weapon, even if your sword arm is not.”
Carolus drew level. He was shivering even beneath his many layers: his leather armour, his sheep’s fleece, his bearskin cloak. “I have a weapon sharper than any sword, Roland – my mind.”
Roland laughed. “Your mind is indeed sharp, but I would always trust my weapon arm over my head. My muscles serve freely and give what they give out of instinct. Knowledge, my lord, always comes at a price.”
“In any case,” Carolus said. “I may not be the master swordsman, but I can shoot an arrow through a stag’s eye two hundred yards off.”
Roland laughed. “Did you never wonder why you won every royal archery contest you ever entered?”
Carolus’ shoulders dropped, his mouth slacked open as if Roland had hit him across the face. The champion felt a sudden lurch of shame, and reached out a gloved hand to touch the boy on the shoulder. “I jest. You marksmanship is known throughout the land There is none to equal you.”
The boy pulled his arm back and out of Roland’s grip. “My father will hear of this, make no mistake. You are my servant, champion, I expect fealty.”
“I promise you,” Roland said solemnly. “My very soul is the crown’s.”
He held the boy’s gaze, watching as those brittle blues darted around in microscopic movements. There was no doubting Roland’s words and, after a few moments, Carolus seemed satisfied of this.
“Lead on,” the boy said. “We are alike then, in at least one characteristic.”
The days were short, and it was growing dark by the time they reached their destination – the unwelcoming slit in the rock that marked the entrance to the Snow Mage’s domain.
“The wizard lives in a cave?” Carolus said, as they approached.
“The best place for a magic user, prince,” Roland replied “A place where they can do no harm.”
The air was thin so high up on the mountain, and the valley behind them was shrouded in mist. Roland could feel each breath becoming harder to take; the build-up of lactic acid in his muscles made his legs ache with every step. Behind him, he could hear the prince’s laboured breathing. Looking around, he could see Carolus’s pale skin now an angry red. Such a delicate boy, more interested in playing his flute than practising his swordplay – a creature not built for adventures, not designed for hard living. Roland ran his hand through his straggly beard – the bristles were hard and frost-covered. Prince Carolus was no warrior, and kings who could not fight would not last long in this world. As he was pondering this, the prince’s boot slipped on a patch of ice and he fell, twisting his body round and landing shoulder first in the snow. He yelped like a much-younger boy. Roland dropped his pack and hurried down to help. The prince lay prone, the heavy snow beginning to slowly cover his form beneath its icy blanket. For just a moment, Roland wanted to scoop his mighty hands underneath the body of the child and lift him up, carry him back down the mountain and to his bed. But this was not his way – and he had been given a duty.
“Get up, my liege. We have further to go.”
Carolus groaned and lifted his head from the snow. His eyes were wet, whether with snow-melt or something else, Roland did not know. The champion sighed and held out his hand, but Carolus pushed himself to his knees, and then – with shaking legs – to his feet.
“I am aware of the importance of our mission,” he said, lifting his pack and hefting it onto his shoulder.
Pride – he was his father’s son in one way, at least.
The entrance to the cave was flanked by sculptures of two skeletons in full battle armour, visors up, holding out their gauntleted hands in a warning not to enter. There was also some kind of writing – in characters alien to Roland – carved into the lintel above the entrance.
“That script,” the prince pointed to the letters. “It’s Eldertongue.”
“Well. I imagine they’re asking us to wipe our feet. Come on,” Roland stepped into the darkness without another word.
“No,” Carolus said, his voice flat and quiet. “It’s a warning. That character there means ‘king’ or ‘lord’, and the one next to it – the one next to it is ‘death’.”
Roland turned around. Carolus stood silhouetted at the entrance, the fading daylight at his back. “You read Eldertongue?”
“There are some old parchments in the palace library.”
“Well, the Eldermen left these parts an age ago. Whatever they were warning us about has been and gone. The wizard lives here now.”
“Then he truly must not want visitors.” Carolus remained standing at the entrance, the edges of his feet grazing – but not crossing – the threshold.
“Nevertheless, we have a quest, young master.”
“The lives of everyone in our city – including your father, your sister – hang on us finding a cure to the sleeping plague. And the Snow Mage is the only man we know who may be able to help.”
Carolus nodded, and stepped into the darkness.
They lit torches and passed far enough into the passageway for the chill wind to be a distant call, like people speaking in hushed tones in an adjacent room. Then, as the passage began to widen, they decided to make camp. They ate the cold trail meats Roland had been saving for this last leg of the journey. The champion watched the prince chew delicately on the tough flesh while he ripped through it with his sharp canines. When they had finished, they unrolled their bedding and put out the torch. After a few moments in the darkness, Carolus said:
“Will we reach him tomorrow, then, the wizard?”
“We are tired,” Roland replied “And we must be alert before we venture any further.”
“Are you expecting trouble?”
“A warrior always expects trouble, my prince.”
“What if I cannot persuade him to help?”
Roland rolled over onto his side. He had not taken off his belt and he could feel his dagger, in its scabbard, pressed against his thigh.
“Roland?” Carolus said. “What if I cannot do it?”
“You will do your duty, prince,” Roland said. “And I will do mine.”
Roland did not know for how many hours he had slept. It was as dark when he opened his eyes as it had been when he had closed them. He lit a torch and sat upright. Carolus was still sleeping, curled up tight into a ball beneath his bear pelt, his blonde hair fallen over his face. Roland sat watching him breath in and out, and he was reminded of his own sons – all three of them killed in battle – and how, when they were young, he used to watch them sleep and wonder about their dreams, wonder too what the world had in store for them. Blood, blood, and more blood, that’s all they had seen. Roland let the prince sleep until he was ready to wake of his own accord. Then they gathered their things and ventured deeper into the darkness.
A further twenty minutes in, the tunnel opened out into an enormous hall, carved into the centre of the mountain and held up at intervals by huge pillars of stone which stretched up to a vaulted roof. Bolts of daylight shot through the hall from shafts carved into the top of mountain, lighting the chamber in a sepulchral blue. Frost clung to every surface and, at the far end of the hall on a raised platform accessible by a tall staircase, a large block of ice stood like an altar. Roland watched his breath misting in the air as he entered the chamber. He extinguished his torch and instructed Carolus to do the same.
“This is where he lives, the Snow Mage?” the prince said.
“Not all men require the comforts of a warm hearth,” Roland said. He stepped further into the hall, looking to his left and to his right.
“There is no-one here.”
“Keep it low, to a whisper.” Roland began to creep around the edge of the hall, staying as close to the wall as possible, setting each foot down carefully. Carolus followed, mimicking his precision, until they were about halfway across - when he heard the prince curse and drop his pack, the gold and silver trinkets he had brought to appease the wizard ringing out like cymbals on the stone floor.
“This is hopeless,” he said. “There is no-one here.”
“Shhhh!” Roland hissed, ducking low as if he were avoiding a missile. “We must be quiet.”
“Or what?” exclaimed the prince. “We are not here to sneak up on the enchanter – we want his attention. We should be waving our hands, we should be blowing a trumpet. We should be calling out: SNOW MAGE, SNOW MAGE, THE PEOPLE OF WINTERSHOLM REQUEST YOUR SUCCOUR” – these last words he shouted, his hands cupped over his mouth.
“You see?” he said, smiling. “There is nobody here, Roland.”
A rumbling sound, like the beginnings of an avalanche, emanated from the back of the hall. The floor shook, and dust and ice began to be shaken down from the shafts in the ceiling; several large blocks crashed to the floor and shattered like fallen chandeliers. Roland grimaced. “Best nock an arrow, young master,” he said. As he pulled his battle axe out of its holster, a gigantic humanoid form loomed out of the darkness at the other end of the hall, almost scraping the ceiling of the chamber fifty feet above them.
He heard Carolus pulling a bolt out of his quiver, heard the arrow head knocking against the bow. Expert marksman or not – the boy’s nerves would be the end of him. “Get back to the passageway,” said Roland, “it can’t follow us in there.”
“What is it?”
“Some kind of golem – an enchanted guardian.”
With each step the golem took, the ground shook. The creature was carved out of the earth itself – it had legs and arms and a body like a man but its head was a mere ring of stone set on its broad shoulders. Within that ring was a hollow wherein glowed an evil red light – like the heart of a furnace.
“You have fought one of these before, champion?” said Carolus, as the creature lurched towards them and they backed away.
“Aye,” said Roland.
“And what was your winning strategy?”
“My strategy?” Roland spat. “My strategy was to run, young prince.” As he said this, the golem stopped and angled its great, featureless head down towards the intruders. An ominous stillness took the air.
“And what is your plan now, retainer?”
“Much the same,” said Roland. “Except this time, run faster.” Roland spun around – the prince was ducking in his shadow. He heard a keening whine from the direction of the golem, and he grabbed Carolus and pushed him back towards the cave entrance. Behind them, the air erupted in flames as a tunnel of fire shot out from the titan’s head. Roland could hear it singeing his wolf-skin cloak as they ran.
They ducked behind one of the great pillars. The ground shook beneath them as the golem advanced further into the chamber. Roland could feel his blood pounding in his ears and hear his breath short and ragged in his lungs. Carolus, however, seemed strangely calm, his anxiety dissipated.
“It would appear as if our wizard is not fond of guests,” he said.
“It would take an army to bring that thing down,” Roland replied, already feeling his face burn with shame at the failure of their quest. He knew he could not return empty-handed – and that meant he could not return at all.
“You must go back to Wintersholm, my prince,” he said. “Tell your father he must find another way.”
The ground stopped shaking and, a moment later, a column of fire seared the earth to the right of the pillar they were huddled against. Roland could feel the heat against his face. He began to prepare himself to meet his death. He put his hand on Carolus’s shoulder. “I will distract the creature for as long as I can. You must make a dash to the exit. Do not look back.”
Carolus seemed almost to be laughing – it was not the reaction Roland had expected. “I have come too far to go back now,” he said. “Give me your rope.”
Roland looked down at length of climbing rope tied to his belt, but he did not see its relevance. “We cannot win against a creature such as this.”
“Hand me your rope, vassal.” Carolus held out his hands and Roland, wrinkled brow furrowed further in confusion, did as he asked.
“I have a duty to protect you,” Roland said.
“You have a duty to follow orders,” Carolus replied. “Now,” he pointed at the far wall. “I want you to draw the creature’s attention in that direction – trying not to get yourself killed.”
“And what are you going to do?” asked Roland.
The ground started to shake again as the golem lumbered forward. Tiny pieces of ice and rock were shaken off the pillar and fell, dusting their heads in crystal fragments. Carolus began unfurling the rope. “When I call to you, I want you to try and lure the beast over here – between these two pillars.” He pointed at the next pillar along to their left. “I’ll be doing what I can to attract its attention too.”
“This is madness, my lord. There can be no victory here,” Roland said, still perplexed as to his prince’s plans.
“I am giving you an order, retainer. Now go!” The prince’s blue eyes shone with a steel Roland had not seen in them before, a hardness that reminded him, for the first time, of the king. He nodded and turned, stepping out of the shadow of the pillar and facing the golem –only yards away. The creature stopped its advance and turned its great, featureless head towards him. Roland lifted his axe in the air – it felt good to be holding the weapon in his hands even if he knew it was useless here. Then he let out an ululating war cry and dashed to his right, just as the air behind him erupted into flames. As he ran, he could hear the creature turning slowly to face him, and he hoped that he could buy Carolus enough time to do whatever it was he needed to do.
When he made it to another pillar he stopped and ducked his head around to see what the golem was doing – it was lumbering in his direction exactly as planned. He stepped out from the pillar again and hefted his axe in the air. “Over here,” he shouted at the creature, “follow me”, and he began to run to the next pillar along. As he was running, he heard Carolus call, ordering him to turn around and guide the creature back. He spun on his heels and ran towards where the prince had told him, narrowly avoiding being incinerated by another bolt of flame that burst out behind him and knocked him to his knees. Prone, he was prepared for the worst – but it didn’t come. He heard a whistling noise and, looking up, saw the prince was already drawing the golem’s attention by shooting arrows at the creature’s head. He was doing no damage, but he was succeeding in luring it towards him. It was only as the golem’s leg hit the rope – tied tight between the two pillars as a tripwire – and began to teeter and loses its balance, that Roland realised what Carolus had done. The prince was running backwards, towards the entrance passageway, as the golem tipped over and fell, crashing forwards onto the surface of the chamber and sending a great cloud of dust and ice billowing up.
Roland was still on his knees when the prince’s hand reached out from the swelling ice cloud and pulled him to his feet. Behind him, the red glow from the golem’s head faded out.
“Not bad,” Roland said, surveying the broken form of the giant as the dust cleared from its body.
“The intellect is a weapon too, my dear champion,” said Carolus, a wide grin splitting his mouth. “And it is sharper than any axe you may care to carry.”
Roland grunted and pointed at the icy altar deeper in the chamber. “We must head farther in.”
Their footsteps echoed through the cavern as they approached the steps, and the blue light from above began to turn a darker hue.
“You must take the lead now, my liege,” Roland said when they reached the staircase. “It is not for the likes of me to approach.”
The victor’s confidence of a moment before disappeared and Carolus looked like a small boy again – unworldly and in need of a strong hand to guide him. Roland could not keep his gaze. “I will be behind you,” he whispered. Carolus nodded and began climbing the steps. “Be careful now,” Roland said as they ascended. “The ice is thick here. It would be a long way to fall.”
They picked their way up the staircase. The higher they climbed, the more likely a fall would result in certain death. Roland had the peculiar sensation of feeling sweat dripping down his chest and arms and seeing his breath frosting in the air at the same time. Carolus seemed sure-footed, but Roland could see the prince’s hands shaking as he reached out to steady himself.
When they reached the top, they stepped out onto a small platform. The block of ice in front of them was illuminated by one large shaft of blue light coming down from a hole in the mountain above. Roland could feel an intense cold radiating in waves from the altar – like a furnace in negative.
“There is,” Carolus whispered, pointing at the ice block, “a body in there.”
“I know,” said Roland, hefting his belt up and gripping his dagger. There was, indeed, the dark form of a man encased within the ice – less of an altar now and more of a tomb.
Suddenly, everything around the platform disappeared into blackness – as if the daylight shining through the holes above had been cut off. Only the platform and the frozen bier remained in existence, and the chill in the air became deathly. A voice, like a fist knocking against a hollow wall, addressed them:
“Who approaches? Dost thou bring me succour, or hast thou come to torment me?”
Carolus glanced over his shoulder and Roland nodded.
“I am Prince Carolus Boniface of the city of Wintersholm. I come to seek the help of the great wizard on behalf of my beleaguered kingdom.”
Roland tightened his grip on the pommel of his dagger. Carolus stood rigid, every nerve and muscle in his body taut. After a short pause, a dark laughter rang around the cavern. Carolus looked back at Roland, mouthed a question – “What should I do?” – but Roland had no answer. He started to pull his dagger free of its sheath, the metal shining blue in the subterranean light.
“You come to seek my aid, noble prince?”
“Yes,” Carolus said, his voice shaky and faltering. “The people of my father’s kingdom are being struck down with a terrible sickness – a plague wherein their bodies remain well but their minds decay, as if they are awake while sleeping, as if they are unconscious with their eyes wide to the world.”
“The sleeping sickness. I am aware of this malady.”
“Great wizard,” Carolus unshouldered his pack and brought out the gold treasures and jewel-encrusted trinkets they had brought with them. “My father the king is willing to pay any price to secure your assistance.”
More laughter – a dread sound that chilled Roland to the marrow.
“I have the answers that you seek prince of Wintersholm, but why do you assume your treasure will procure my assistance?”
“My father has authorised me to pay any price, great snow mage.”
“Do you even know whom you address?”
Carolus looked round again at his retainer, but Roland would not look at him. He nodded in the prince’s direction, urging him to persist.
“The great wizard of the ice, the snow mage who lives in this cave. Your name is unknown to me and for that I must apologise. Forgive my ignorance – my people are desperate and we believe only you can help us.”
“I am no wizard of the frosts, prince of men. Step closer to my prison and see from whom it is you petition for aid.”
Carolus stepped closer to the block of ice, and Roland did likewise. He could see the dark form within become a little clearer as he did so, as if the ice crystals in which the figure was encased had rearranged themselves for greater transparency to aid their seeing. There was no living man, no magic user, inside that frozen water, but a black-robed skeleton, crowned with an iron circlet and clutching a dark sceptre.
“You speak to the king of the dead, the emperor of the underworld, the Lich Lord.”
Carolus staggered back, almost falling, and drew his sword. Roland was behind him in an instant, holding him up and pressing his hand down to sheathe the blade.
“We are not here to fight.”
“But Roland, this is not the wizard.”
“No,” Roland whispered. He could see the prince trembling and hear his chattering teeth. “But he is the one we seek.”
“Many centuries have I passed in this prison of ice. I have the answers that you need –the cure for this sickness – but the price of my assistance is my freedom.”
“Roland,” Carolus hissed. “This cannot be what my father intended. We cannot release this creature from his captivity.”
“Shhh,” Roland whispered, and he held the prince close to his chest, as he remembered holding his youngest son the day he joined the royal cavalry. How strange it was he was only able to show such affection shortly before it would never be possible to do so again? He had known Carolus all his life, had watched him grow, had done his best to train him in the ways of the warrior-kings. He was like Roland’s fourth son and, despite their differences, he loved him. Yet there was only one way to free the Lich Lord from his tomb, only one way to melt the ice of his prison and save the people of Wintersholm from the sleeping plague – it was the only reason the king had sent his son to such a dark place. It had not for the vassal, Roland knew, to suggest the monarch may have volunteered to go in his son’s stead.
“Legend has it,” Roland said, “That the blood of the Eldermen runs in the veins of the kings of Wintersholm.” He felt Carolus stiffen, his hands start to push his champion away, but Roland already had his dagger in his hand, and before any further distance opened between them he had slid the blade deep into Carolus’ chest. Roland held the dagger in, feeling the shock ripple through the prince’s body, and guided Carolus over to the ice containing the Lich. He whispered that he was sorry as he laid the prince down on the bier, stroked the boy’s blonde hair and said it again as he watched those delicate blue eyes darting about in shock, as his limbs twitched and jolted in pain and he pleaded noiselessly for help.
“Only Elder blood can break the spell,” Roland said, and he pulled his dagger out and closed his eyes as the dark red blood pooled and spread out under the body of the prince. For the first time in his life, tears rolled down his cheeks. He could hear the ice beginning to melt.
Halfway down Mount Atinos, Roland could see the verdant darkness of the Grunewald drawing closer to him. He longed to be off the mountain, to lose himself in the shade of the ancient pine forest, to be in a place where he could not see the sky. It was evening, and his fire was not lighting. Further south, the chimneys of Wintersholm sent pillars of smoke into the granite-grey skies. He gave up trying to light the fire and stood, picking up his pack and deciding he would keep walking for as long as the dwindling daylight would allow. The sooner he arrived back in Wintersholm, the more lives he would save. He unrolled the scroll the Lich Lord had given him and looked at the instructions. Not all the ingredients for the cure would be findable within the confines of the valley. Search parties would need to be sent in several directions, other kingdoms and domains would need to be trespassed and other rulers bargained with if all the necessary items were to be found. The body gives what it gives freely, Roland reminded himself, but knowledge always comes at a price.
© April, 2013 M. R. Timson
M. R. Timson lives in London, England. This is his first published story.